The Malaysian urban, liberal middle class are up in arms. They have been unhappy with Malaysia’s decision to ban Israel from taking part in the 2019 World Para Swimming championships since it was first declared two weeks ago.
The decision led to the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) announcing that it will seek out another country to host the games.
Cyberspace exploded with criticism over Malaysia’s decision. After all, you are not supposed to mix politics with sports and worse, in this case, an international sporting event for athletes with a disability leading up to the Paralympics.
For the urban middle class, the ban on these Israeli athletes is illogical as the targetted group has little to do with the Israeli government or its policies.
To them, the decision risks damaging Malaysia’s reputation and contradicts the promise of a “new”, inclusive Malaysia, when the country has gone to great lengths to make such a statement regarding Israel and set an example out of these youths.
In this context, the IPC’s decision to strip Malaysia of its hosting rights was a repudiation of Malaysia’s move and a downright international embarrassment to them.
When the decision was first made, Israel led the international condemnation of Malaysia and laid the blame squarely on Mahathir, accusing him of “rabid anti-Semitism.".
It was not too long ago in October 2018, in BBC’s Hard Talk series, Mahathir was challenged when he described Jews as “hook-nosed”, so it is easy to see why both Malaysia’s decision and the reaction to their ban were so racially and emotionally charged.
But even then, Mahathir had made it plain that:
If you’re going to be truthful, the problem in the Middle East began with the creation of Israel.
The fact is that Mahathir’s view on Israel is less underpinned by anti-Semitism as it is a moral conviction about Israel and Israel-Palestine developments. His views, some say, is a mainstream one held in Malaysia.
Mahathir’s real beef with Israel is his belief that Palestinians were mistreated and oppressed by Israel for the past six decades because the West and other powerful political leaders were afraid of speaking up and risk being labelled anti-Semitic.
In his worldview, he sees Israeli leaders as constantly using the Holocaust as an excuse for the country’s continued occupation of Palestine.
At the 16th Islamic Summit Conference in 2003, in one of his last speeches before stepping down, Mahathir said:
The Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million. But today the Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them.
You only have to read his blog, which he started after retiring as Malaysian PM in 2003, to see that developments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have shaped his worldviews about Israel and their supporters, which have remained entirely consistent for the past half century.
In 2014, he penned that:
The Jews may not be a criticised in any way without the critic being labelled 'anti-Semitic'. And many European countries support this view to the extent of jailing anyone accused of being anti-Semitic.
Earlier in 2012, he wrote:
I am glad to be labelled anti-Semitic. How can I be otherwise when the Jews who so often talk of the horrors they suffered during the Holocaust show the same Nazi cruelty and hard-heartedness towards not just their enemies but even towards their allies should any try to stop the senseless killing of their Palestinian enemies.
In private letters to Western leaders, including the American president, he made the same points about the plight of the Palestinians and their mistreatment with impunity when accusations of harsh tactics employed by Israel were usually met with muted response from the international community.
The other reality is that there are many Malaysian Muslims who hold even more extreme views of Israel, and have even gone as far to call for the total annihilation of Jews and the complete destruction of Israel.
POLITICAL MILEAGE WITH MALAY VOTERS
Yet the Malaysia government’s strong stand at the present moment also confers some convenient political mileage at a crucial point in the Pakatan Harapan’s journey to entrench its political dominance post 14th General Election (GE14).
After unseating a decades-old Barisan Nasional (BN) government, the Pakatan Harapan coalition still finds it has problems making inroads into rural Malaysia. UMNO and PAS commanded a majority of the rural Malay votes in the last General Election and hold great influence.
The calculation may be that taking a strong stand against Israel now costs Pakatan nothing but may gain it much-needed ground among the country’s Malay majority.
In the lead-up to the Cameron Highlands by-election last week, UMNO and PAS candidates brandished their conservative racial and religious credentials and regularly reminded Malay voters that the Malays’ “special status” and position of Islam were under threat with the Pakatan at the helm of government.
This strategy seemed to have worked as the combined UMNO and PAS votes gave the BN a comfortable victory. Mahathir himself said it was disappointing that they played the race card but acknowledged the need to court rural Malay voter and tackle issues close to their heart, including rising costs of living.
The first by-election the Pakatan has lost since GE14, Cameron Highlands has been a bellwether for how the Pakatan coalition might do in the future.
And there is another test on the horizon, after Selangor assemblyman Bakhtiar Mohd Nor passed away this month after a heart attack.
The Semenyih by-election, to be held on Mar 2, will see Bersatu face off UMNO directly for the first time, where Malaysia’s hosting of the World Para Swimming Championships issue may be used by UMNO to paint Bersatu as a party friendly to Israel to sway Muslim fence-sitters in the constituency.
Competition has intensified with PAS announcing it has joined forces to support UMNO and will not field a candidate to avoid a three-cornered fight.
Against this backdrop, losing a second by-election in a row will raise questions about Pakatan’s ability to represent Malay rights.
The deeper fear that Pakatan has is that any more wins by UMNO or PAS may lead to a formal alliance or even worse, a merger between the two parties, creating a stronger contender to the Pakatan in the next General Elections that can be a destabilising force in the lead-up.
QUITE HAPPY TO BE STRIPPED OF ROLE
Mahathir and Malaysia’s refusal to host Israeli athletics is consistent with Mahathir’s views going back half a century, but it is driven more by his support for the Palestinian people rather than a hatred of the Jews. The timing of the upcoming Semenyih by-election also gave Mahathir an added motivation to act decisively.
READ: 'Let them cancel' - Mahathir reacts to decision to strip Malaysia of 2019 World Para Swimming Championships
The Malaysian government is quite happy the IPC has stripped Malaysia of its role as host. The political costs of hosting the event were far too high for a new Malaysian government trying to secure its footing among Malay voters.
Professor James Chin is Director of the Asia Institute Tasmania at the University of Tasmania and Senior Fellow at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia.